Sunday, February 08, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: February, Week 2

As you might expect from a vegetarian, I don't plan to explore preserving meats in this series. Not only do I not eat them, I just don't have a clue in how to preserve them.

But there's an area of food preservation beyond produce that you might not think about: preserving milk in the forms of butter, yogurt, and cheese.

To those of us in the "modern" or developed world, that hardly seems like an area of preservation. But for our forebears and for other groups around the world today, a surplus of milk produced by family livestock needed to be preserved in some way if it was not to be sold.

I have not yet had the experience of churning butter from whole milk (though my friend the fair Titania has done so often), so I won't talk about it here. As for making yogurt, I gave that a try a few months back and enjoyed the results, though I have yet to repeat the experiment.

Cheesemaking, though, is another story. I've played with the very basic technique of making paneer from whole milk and plain yogurt, and I hope to take a cheesemaking class at some point later this year. I'd really like to learn how to make the hard cheeses, like cheddar or muenster or gouda, but right now I don't have a place for their long-term storage.

In the meantime, I have a kit for making mozzarella and ricotta, thanks to a visit to Lehman's some months ago. And this weekend turned out to be a good time to test the whole milk ricotta recipe.

The process for making ricotta is very similar to that for paneer, but the ingredients are slightly different: citric acid and cheese salt are adding to the milk, and the whole mixture is brought up to a gentle boil very slowly, allowing the curds time to separate with care.

I laid a section of "butter muslin" from the kit over my colander so that I could drain off the whey, then I bundled the muslin ends together and suspended the cheese over the colander (and a bowl) to let it finish draining. (Sorry for the blurry photo: the cheese was swaying slightly after being hung up.)

I made only half a recipe and ended up with about a pound of fresh ricotta, but it looked very creamy and rich.

Later I made a pot of spaghetti sauce, using fresh onion and garlic, dried green pepper and herbs, and two quarts of tomato sauce from the pantry, along with tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and a few other ingredients.

Together with the sauce, fresh spelt pasta, and chopped spinach from the freezer, the ricotta made a deliciously, meltingly creamy and satisfying lasagna for dinner. (I served it with a mix of green and wax beans from last year's CSA, tossed with crumbs and olive oil.)

Now, I don't expect to have milk-giving livestock at any point, and I don't generally have much of a surplus of milk, so I suspect that any cheesemaking I do will be for fun or for specific meals rather than for serious preservation. But it's a good and thoroughly enjoyable skill to learn, and I highly recommend it.

I mean, whey not?

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